Review: Sounds of Vienna, Philadelphia Orchestra feat. Jan Lisiecki

Thursday, January 14 2016
Carnegie Hall, New York, NY

Philadelphia Orchestra
Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor
Jan Lisiecki, piano

J. Strauss Jr, “Tales from the Vienna Woods” Waltz, Op. 325 (1868)
Beethoven, Piano Concerto No. 4 (1806)
Beethoven, String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95 (1810, arr. Mahler)
HK Gruber, Charivari (1981)

The way most things happen in life is gradually and then suddenly.  Falling in love, for instance.  And growing old.  Having started elementary school one year early and then proceeded to spend the next 22 years in school (where peers are neatly divided along years of birth), I had always been reminded of my youth.  But at some point evidence started mounting that even I couldn’t escape aging.  High school classmates posting wedding pictures on Facebook, then baby pictures.  Coworkers who were mostly born half a decade later.  Strangers in hostels saying things like “I’m traveling the world now so that by the time I’m __, I’d be settled into a career and family”, where __ is my age (or younger).

Then, one fine winter evening, a 20 year old kid makes his Carnegie Hall debut, and suddenly it hits me that I’m now old enough, that someone who wasn’t even born at the time I stopped playing Beethoven, is now performing Beethoven as a pro.

Jan Lisiecki is, as we said, 20 years old.  He is lanky and apparently a Vogue model.  In fact he looks almost like a young blond Benedict Cumberbatch.  His demeanor is calm and unaffected, which in another few years would serve him well with Beethoven’s 4th.  For now his quietness translates more as timid rather than quietly assertive, especially with a full-bodied orchestra around him.  Unlike Beethoven’s other piano concertos, the 4th opens with a thoughtful piano solo.  (Come to think of it, other than the Rach 2, I haven’t heard another concerto–for any instrument–that gives the first note to the soloist.)  There is no effervescent first movement or an emotive second as I’d come to expect from the composer, but rather the whole piece feels like a serious dialogue between the piano and the orchestra, until some of the tension dissolves in the more typical rondo finale.  To my ear, Mr. Lisiecki hit all the right notes at the prescribed tempo, but did not quite bring out the subtle conflicts of the music.  To be fair, the 4th may be Beethoven’s least accessible piano concerto, a tall order for a 20 year old to interpret.  For encore, the soloist made the interesting choice of playing Träumerei from Schumann’s Kinderszenen.  It is not a technically difficult piece–with some practice even I can give a go at it, but playing it fluidly such that emotions flow at will is not easy.  Here one can sense Mr. Lisiecki’s immense potential.  It’s as if he created a canvas with the notes and painted something heartbreakingly beautiful on it.  When he figures out how to do that at scale with entire concertos, he will be the heir apparent to Krystian Zimerman, if he isn’t already.
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The rest of the concert is all nominally a tribute to Vienna, with the opening waltz, the closing deconstruction of waltz, and the Beethoven quartet, composed shortly after Napoleon’s invasion of Vienna (which had upset the composer greatly).  I’d say that in reality it was more like a tribute to the Philadelphia Sound–the strings played an orchestral arrangement of the quartet, after all, and they played it with such conviction that it is difficult to imagine that the piece was not originally composed for the richness of a full-bodied orchestra.  Otherwise, to be honest I was seriously jet-lagged, having made a 25 hour trip back to NYC from Oceania earlier this week, so I was kind of out of it, even with being surrounded by the sound of my beloved Philadelphia Orchestra.

Nevertheless, I absorbed and enjoyed enough of the concert to opine that our old friend Anthony Tommasini from the New York Times is once again rather provincial in his predictable critique of the concert, that “orchestras everywhere have been engaged for too long in what feels like a continuous Vienna festival.  And in these programs, Mr. Nézet-Séguin is mostly sticking to the canon, including Beethoven, Haydn and Bruckner, with just one short piece by a living composer.”  First of all, no sentence should start with a conjunction in journalistic writing.  Also, the first part of that statement is simply not true–the New York Philharmonic, for instance, seems to have been engaged for too long in what feels like a continuous Rachmaninoff festival, which I do not recall Mr. Tommasini criticizing.  Moreover, the second part of that statement is akin to saying something like “This English lit curriculum is mostly sticking to the canon, including Shakespeare, Austen, and Dickens, with just one short poem by a living writer.”  Whatever is wrong with that?  The fact is that classical music, be it Strauss or Beethoven or Esa-Pekka Salonen, has been at least partially rooted–explicitly or implicitly–in Viennese tradition since before Mozart, and it will continue to be as such.  After all this time.  Always.

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